My Frosh Year 2022-23: A Reflection

It’s a beautiful day outside… the birds are singing, flowers are blooming… and it’s cloudy??? That’s right people, it’s cloudy here in beautiful Southern California. Where is the “almost 365 days of sunshine” I was promised by the Admissions Office in my acceptance letter a year ago?

So here, dear reader, I write to you during a cloudy June evening in beautiful Pasadena, where I will recall to you my experience here as a frosh (plus bonus prefrosh adventures from FSRI, previously known as the Freshman Summer Research Institute and is now rebranded as the First-Year Success Research Institute).

When I got into Caltech on March 21st, 2022 at 6:26am PST, I was shocked. I imagine that many people share this sentiment, I mean, “Oh my gosh, it’s the Caltech!!!” Who wouldn’t be shocked? Well, dear reader, it’s because I applied to Caltech as pretty much a joke. In 8th grade, I thought it would be funny to apply to Caltech because I wanted to study Computer Science, and the “California Institute of TECHnology” is just like our friend to the east. As a California kid, of course I should apply to the California one! Halfway through writing my Caltech application a week before it was due, I almost scrapped my application because I realized Caltech doesn’t formally offer any linguistics academic programs nor established research (unlike our friend to the east). Ouch. Computational linguistics was (and is still) my passion, and I was hesitant to continue writing an application for a school that doesn’t offer anything in my specific interest. But my dad, in his infinite “you only live once” wisdom, told me to just finish the application and send it in for the fun of it. Okay then!

So there I was that fateful March day, waking up at 6:30am during the height of my gym bro arc, crying in front of my laptop because Oh my gosh I got into Caltech whaaaaaaaat??? I was ecstatic for 30 seconds, before the impostor syndrome sat in. I am an impostor. I didn’t apply because I care about science. I applied as a joke. If I attend here, I’ll be surrounded by those who actually care. I have fooled the admissions office!

But (spoiler alert wow) I did commit to Caltech in the end. After attending DiscoTech and meeting some of the kindest, most wonderful people ever, I felt more confident about belonging here at Caltech. (The amazing financial aid package didn’t hurt either.) I felt like I made the right choice.

And that, dear reader, was such a…choice.

I got into FSRI and immediately discovered that I was right! I am an impostor! I was surrounded by robotics geniuses (my high school robotics team got shut down right after it was created due to COVID-19), math geniuses (I actually cried doing an integral on the blackboard during FSRI), and multiple other academically gifted people. Then there was me: the homeschooled kid who took non-standardized classes at the community college and was so burnt out that I could barely recall the mathematical definition of a derivative. It was a whirlwind of a week, where I also managed to catch COVID-19 for the very first time in my life despite isolating for 2 whole years and spent the next week under mandated isolation.

We won’t delve too deep into Caltech’s COVID-19 isolation protocols. Just know that it was one of the most socially-isolating times of my entire life (and I was literally homeschooled), and that the food they gave me was very concerning (what is a curry pasta???). It was such a lovely introduction to Caltech campus life!!! I learned that you should NEVER get sick at Caltech: I still had FSRI math homework during isolation, and I quickly realized that doing homework alone here (while sick too!) is a very stressful and near-impossible feat.

I also got to interact with Title IX for the first time that week. That was (and still currently is) a very dark portion of my time here as a prefrosh AND frosh. I will also not delve into this, but this definitely started my time here on a very, very shaky foot.

Safe to say, I did not have a perfect prefrosh experience! And this was just the first two weeks! Thankfully, the rest of FSRI did not have a crisis occurring every week. I mostly lived a blissful, carefree little prefrosh life where I cooked with friends, went on field trips, and only occasionally had pangs of impostor syndrome. Such is the Caltech summer life. So carefree, so blissful… almost childishly innocent.

I ended the summer on a pretty positive note. One of hope… of excitement… even of confidence. This all shattered almost immediately with Ch1a. (Yes, not Ma1a. Everyone knows that class is hazing.) Nobody told me how bad Ch1a would be. They all waved me off, saying “AP Chem knowledge is barely useful in this class.” Yet, those same people who have taken AP Chem all insisted that Ch1a is “doable” while I slip further into despair, utterly befuddled as to how people are able to pull numbers out of nowhere. “Meeting up to do sets” turned into me flipping through the book and Googling helplessly as my friends did their best to explain to me how to do the problems.

I had the worst grades on returned quizzes of my life during first term. I expected to not be perfect in college, because I knew that perfection was a debilitating mindset to have, but I did not expect 53% and 17% on my quizzes despite attending lecture, going to sections, etc. As the days grew darker and grayer, so did my personality. I withdrew to my room, only leaving to go to the doctor’s, where I got referred to a specialist who diagnosed me with a lifelong medical condition. I have been displaying these symptoms for years and got dismissed repeatedly, only to be diagnosed in the middle of frosh first term. I felt as if everything in life was a cruel joke.

I tried to seek help. I went to Caltech Counseling, who informed me that I only had 8 sessions with their office for each concern I had, and long-term care should be sought for in the community. I quickly exhausted 3 sessions in under one term, and it was not viable for me to seek resources outside of Caltech for help, so it was really just me, my journal, and a really, really strong desire to not let Caltech beat me down.

Somehow, I passed my first term. People had told me I would definitely pass, and I almost believed them. But I saw my friends around me unable to pass, friends who had fought incredible odds to make it here. Here, surrounded by so many people who had done high school prep programs, received private tutoring, and overall could access a wide variety of resources past a standard high school experience, those who came from underfunded schools were playing catch-up through a curriculum that a large percentage already were familiar with. They were learning on the go while others were refreshing their knowledge, something that was simply unfair. My QuestBridge friends told me about a lack of a QB alumni network that could inform them on what the Caltech experience is like for FGLI students, and they would sometimes lament their regret in ranking Caltech during the QB application process.

And though I passed first term, I also had a very difficult time. I noted the difference between a standardized education versus what I had, which was extremely non-traditional. I took exactly 2 AP exams in my high school career and took classes either online or through the local community college, where sometimes entire units in a class would be cut out. There was no standardization in how each class was taught. Thus, I had gaps in my knowledge and also spent time to catch up academically.

Needless to say, it was a bad time. It also did not help that I decided to ignore everyone’s advice and take Ma 6a, which was taught by a postdoc in Fall 2022. Oh boy! He turned “Introduction to Discrete Mathematics” to “Graph Theory for the Enlightened”, and I’m sorry to report that I was not enlightened enough for this class! Thankfully, the ARC was able to save the class in the end, and I got away with only 80% of this class being horrific for me. Lesson learned: do NOT ignore upperclassmen’s advice!

Second term went much better. I had a relatively light courseload despite being on 45 units, including a very interesting humanities class, and I got to take CS 2 with Adam Blank. It was a great class! Taught well, organized well, and overall swell. I had a lot of fun in CS 2, and it’s my most favorite class to date. (Yes, I wish more Caltech classes were like it.) Disclaimer: I had experience with data structures in high school, so it was not as puzzling for me compared to the rest of core.

Unfortunately, CS 2’s experience did not cancel out the less savory ones. My most vivid memory at Caltech is the one after I finished my Ch1b final, where I called home to my father at 2am sobbing. Then, I talked to a PA. And then I wandered around campus in the wee hours of the morning, with the saddest Vietnamese music blasting in my ears, violently shaking and sobbing as I circled Caltech Hall at least 3 times. A friend, worried for me, came looking for me and stayed with me to make sure I was okay. I fell asleep at 7am that day, filled with fitful dreams of sinking through my bed, body spiraling endlessly into the air. Thankfully, I did pass… or else I would have completely broken down.

I’m not the top student here at Caltech. I sit right below the average. People tell me that this is already pretty great, but the constant climb to even make it to the average is exhausting. For a long time, I forgot what I used to do for fun. I used to really enjoy digital art, and I drew a real sketch for the first time since last year two weeks ago. I stopped playing video games entirely, and I use my free time to catch up on sleep.

So as summer approaches, I’m learning how to find myself again. I’m grateful for Dabney Hovse, whose members continued to look out for me and encourage me. House activities such as Pumpkin Drop, impromptu camping trips at Joshua Tree, and other traditions give me something to look forward to, and I never let Dabney forget how much they mean to me. The upperclassmen and PAs that gave me pep talks and a laugh show me that I can make it through Caltech. As for my frosh friends, who I have made through FSRI and within Dabney Hovse, they’re always by my side, and I couldn’t ask for a kinder, quirkier, funnier, or all-around amazing group of friends. We have gone through so much together, picking each other up when we need support, and occasionally venturing out into the city together whenever we can.

So I will close out to you, dear reader, from my double in Dabney. My roommate and I are preparing to move out, them for their international astro SURF, me to a new summer room for my own SURF (where I will actually be doing computational linguistics research!!!). It is still cloudy out. I still have to take my third term finals. Things can be very hard sometimes. Things are very hard sometimes. But I have friends, summer plans, and a very big desire to graduate from Caltech.

Somehow, I know that things will be okay.